In general, this series of posts has been devoted to books without which Dungeons & Dragons would not have been possible, at least not as conceived by Gary Gygax. Today's entry is a little different, because the converse is true: Saga of Old City would not have been possible without Dungeons & Dragons. First published in 1985, it's another late Gygaxian work and, like many other works penned by the Dungeon Master during this same period, I can't help but see it as intentionally "retro." That is, I've come to think that Gygax was, if not thumbing his nose at the direction of TSR and D&D in the years prior to his return from his California exile, offering a counterpoint to that direction. I have no evidence for this thesis beyond looking at what Gygax wrote and published in the post-Dragonlance era: multiple very old school modules stemming from early adventures of his own Greyhawk campaign and the opening novels of the "Gord the Rogue" series.
Perhaps I'm just seeing a method in the madness where there is none, but, even if I'm wrong, can there be any question that Saga of Old City is a literary atavism? The novel tells the story of the childhood and youth of an orphaned boy named Gord who escapes his cruel foster mother to undertake a life of adventure that begins when the Beggars Guild, of which Gord has become a very talented member, runs afoul of the Thieves Guild, leading to a turf war between the two criminal enterprises. To avoid his demise, Gord flees the City of Greyhawk and wanders the surrounding regions of the Flanaess, becoming involved in a variety of events that hone his skills and pave the way for his eventual triumphant return to the city.
There's no question that, as a novelist, Gygax possessed many deficiencies, particularly when it came to dialog. Nevertheless, the picture he paints of Gord's early life and his youthful adventures is a compelling one -- a pulp fantasy pastiche that answers the question, "What if Oliver Twist had been written by Fritz Leiber?" More importantly, it provides many insights into how one of D&D's creators saw the game. Reading through Saga of Old City, it becomes readily apparent that, for Gygax, fantasy adventures didn't have to be epic to be entertaining and fantasy protagonists didn't have to be pivotal figures in the world to be worthy of our attention. What we get is a picaresque tale that feels like a throwback to earlier fantasy literature than anything that was being written in 1985.
Ironically, as the series continued (particularly after Gary left TSR), the original focus of the books shifted considerably, with Gord becoming ever more significant, not just on Oerth but in the wider multiverse. Again, I detect another thumbing of the nose at the company from which he was ousted, with the later books being Gygax's attempt to sabotage the continued viability of the Greyhawk setting, but there are other possible interpretations. Still, I have a great soft spot for Saga of Old City, for in it we saw Gygax bring his home campaign setting to life in a way he never did in any of his other writings. It's only partially successful as novel, I think, but there can be no question that, as a window into the mind of D&D's co-creator, it's well worth reading.